South Charlotte

Church program SPREDs volunteer spirit, lifelong friendships

Jan Clemens wants you to know about a local church program that pairs church volunteers with children and adults with special needs.

In 2003, Clemens and her husband, Paul, moved from Washington, D.C., to Charlotte to retire. While in Washington, Jan Clemens had spent a few years volunteering with SPRED - Special Religious Development Program.

In 2004, as a new member at St. Matthew Catholic Church, Clemens approached Monsignor John McSweeney with the idea of starting a SPRED program at the church.

McSweeney gave Clemens the go-ahead, and in a little more than six years SPRED, a free Christian-based program that meets 12 times between September and May every year at St. Matthew, has grown to 40 volunteers working with almost 40 participants in six age groups.

Clemens and her husband never made it to retirement; they both spend many volunteer hours a week working on SPRED.

St. Matthew is officially a SPRED Center, with the goal of spreading the program into other parishes. St. Vincent de Paul in south Charlotte already has a SPRED group formed.

SPRED brings together church volunteers of all ages, referred to as catechists, and links those catechists to people with special needs. The children and adults with special needs are referred to as "special friends." One catechist is paired with one special friend for a year or more.

Friendships have developed over the years, linking the catechists with their special friends to form a lifelong bond.

SPRED was developed 48 years ago in Chicago by priest James McCarthy and Sister Mary Therese. The program is a faith-formation program that incorporates techniques designed by Maria Montessori, creator of the Montessori teaching method, with emphasis on using all five senses.

Music, art, gesture and ritual are all a part of the program, and volunteers are trained in the methods.

McSweeney says the program has touched many people's hearts.

"I consider the Special Religious Development Program to be a vital part of St. Matthew Catholic Church. Through this program, we recognize both our diversity and our sameness as beautiful human beings. We are a complete parish family when everyone is able to worship and belong," he said.

Nora Martini, 37, is a special friend with SPRED. "I like to spend time with my friends at SPRED. I like doing activities with them," said Martini.

"We like to share stuff and I like talking to them. I like talking about God, because he always gets us together, like going to church," she said.

Clemens said she rejoices in the opportunity SPRED provides to give to the community.

"I see the beauty of our special friends," said Clemens.

Kathy MacMahon said, "SPRED is a wonderful program that has helped our child grow in his faith. SPRED was the first place that welcomed our son unconditionally, with open arms and open hearts.

"This program is such a gift, and we are so grateful."